Goat Mountain, by David Vann, William Heinemann, RRP£16.99/Harper $25.99, 256 pages
In a chapter of his memoir This Boy’s Life (1989), the American short story writer Tobias Wolff details his childhood fascination with a gift from his mother’s boyfriend, Roy: a Winchester .22 rifle, which Roy, in his turn, had carried as a child.
At first Wolff was content to strike poses with it in front of a mirror while his mother was out. Then he found himself crouched at a window drawing a bead on anyone who walked by. Soon the rifle was loaded, and “I sometimes had to bite my lip to keep from laughing in the ecstasy of my power.” The adult narrator glosses: “All my images of myself as I wished to be were images of myself armed. Because I did not know who I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me.”
A similar feeling for the frightening innocence of that stock American figure, the child with a gun, animates David Vann’s third novel, Goat Mountain. Vann dramatises it by way of a stock American situation, the hunting trip gone wrong, and advances his plot from the initial act of wrongness in a way that owes something to Raymond Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close to Home”. Yet his book has little interest in plain-spoken realism and almost none in putting the rituals of hunting in the context of a wider American scene. The story is set in a specific time and place, northern California in 1978, but Vann aims for a timeless or primordial atmosphere, and has developed an expressionist prose style to evoke it.
An 11-year-old boy – the narrator, telling his story in retrospect – goes on a yearly hunting trip with his father, his grandfather and his father’s friend Tom, the only named character. This year the boy is deemed old enough to kill his first deer. As they drive to their ranch – 640 acres of hilly wilderness, with a heavy gate across the only access road – we get a sense of them: the boy, introverted yet excited; the father, a bit less competent than he thinks; Tom, bespectacled and cautious; the silent grandfather, unreadable. From the gate they see a poacher on a ridge. The father examines him through the scope on his rifle and offers the boy a look; the boy pulls the trigger. They remonstrate over the dead man; the boy smiles.
From here on, Vann uses the expectation that the law will assert itself sooner or later to keep the reader off balance. At first the action seems to follow the protocols of a psychological thriller: the men squabble about what to do, disturb the evidence and end up dragging the body to their camp. But by the time the father has hung the body head down from a chain they use for deer, then suggested they all go hunting, the story’s anti-psychological, parable-like aspects have become impossible to ignore. More or less believable scenes of disarray alternate with dreamlike sequences. The grandfather, speaking for a kind of elemental pre-logic, grows disturbingly large and vigorous, while the father, speaking feebly for illusory values, shrinks to the proportions of a stick figure. Things come to a head after several nightmarish hunts and, as you would expect, the ending is not happy.
The narrator – who is unable, then or now, to say why he pulled the trigger in the first place – recounts all this in a style seemingly aimed at capturing a sequence of frozen moments of existential free-fall, all verbless run-on clauses and swarming present participles. (“Dust like powder blanketing the air”, the book begins, “making a reddish apparition of the day. Smell of that dust and smell of pine, smell of doveweed.”)
From his “small apartment” in an otherwise unparticularised future, he speaks often of Cain and Abel, gods and devils. Yet he makes it clear that these are only figures of speech. There are outbreaks of black humour, especially concerning the dead man, who is, so to speak, anthropomorphised into a rather sly and energetic character. But the overwhelmingly dominant notes are horror and despair at the notion that no act – not even killing – can keep meaninglessness at bay.
Vann made his name with his first work of fiction, Legend of a Suicide (2008), a collection of stories and a novella reimagining his real-life father’s death by his own hand. He has long since left that book’s plain manner behind, and I sometimes wonder if a writer with a less traumatic personal history would get as much latitude for being grandly intense; his vision of America as a soul-imperilling wilderness also seems to go down better in Europe than in the US.
It would be flip, but not wholly untrue, to call Goat Mountain an existentialist-vitalist work of redneck horror. Yet some silly touches and moments of heavy allegory don’t quite sink it. Only a very jaded reader could fail to believe in the feeling it projects of being locked in an inner landscape in which one is lost in the woods and chained forever to a corpse.